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Friday, September 28, 2018

Friendship, Hobbits, and Christ

Last weekend our family celebrated three birthdays. Most importantly, we celebrate our younger son turning thirteen. But as part of that celebration, we had fun on Hobbit Day--September 22--because it's the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, main characters from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  We ended up eating seven Hobbits meals and watching a four hour edit of the three Hobbit films as he opened presents.

It was a fun time for our family, but it also gave me an opportunity to appreciate Tolkien's view of friendship. Maybe it was the streamlined edit, but the theme really stood out to me as I watched the film(s) this time around.  Some of Tolkien's emphasis on friendship was born out of his experience in the trenches of first world war.  Even more helpful was seeing how so much of what he wrote seems to bleed in from his Christian convictions. 

For example, Bilbo begins his journey with the dwarves just as wary of them as they are of him. Yet over the many months they travel and face adversity together, the company become friends. Such is the friendship that many times they risk their lives for one another. And we're reminded that "a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Prov 17:17).

At the beginning of the film, Bilbo seems motivated in his perseverance out of a desire to prove himself to the dwarves. But by the end, he sees how much he has at his home, Bag End, compared to the dwarves who have no home. This moved Bilbo, and his motivation changed as he began to bear the burden of others (Gal 6:2).

When Thorin is consumed with a desire for gold and power it changes him for the worse. And Bilbo is willing to tell him to his face. This is more than courage on Bilbo's part. It was an act of friendship towards Thorin. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy" (Prov 27:6).

Of course we're only scratching the surface here. But what struck me most was how rare such examples are today in the real world. 

Many sociological reasons could probably be given. Regardless, the point is the same: friendship is weak today, even in the Church.  Yet, that is the very place where it should be strongest. Friendship among God's people should the standard by which friendship is measured. After all, our friendship with others in grounded in a work of God. We have a Friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24), one who was willing to lay down his own life for his friends (John 15:13).

To be sure, there are amazing friendships in the Church.  In fact, most Christians are friendly. They will send kind and encouraging notes on social media, help someone move, come to baby showers with gifts, and cook meals for those going through difficult times. But this is still friendship lite

Imagine what a profoundly Christlike friendship would look like.  Imagine friendships that transcend family relationships.  Friendships anchored in the gospel. Friendships marked by: frequent conversations about eternal things; conversations born of transparency and deep matters of the heart; a common passion for Christ's kingdom; late nights of prayer interceding for others; vacation time from work used to help care for someone fighting cancer; or allowing someone to use a car or sleep in our home for an extended period of time. It's the kind of friendship that joyfully, sacrificially puts others before ourselves (Phil 2:1-11).

None of us will face orcs or goblins on an adventurous quest. Many of us will never have our friendship tested in battle. But all of us are even now having our mettle tested in the everyday experiences of life. Will we be distracted?  Will we be consumed with entertainment?  Will we bow to the idol of convenience?

Or, looking to Jesus, will we find forgiveness for past failures, security in his perfect Friendship even unto death, and follow his example as our risen King with those God has put into our lives?

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Blessed Trouble

Last week, one of my kids experienced something very troubling.  After we sought comfort from the Scriptures, I asked, “do you have any idea why the Lord might have allowed this to happen?”  There was no response.  I said, “He’s kind.  You’re clinging to Him far more tightly than you were before this, aren’t you?”  “Yes.”

A few days later, as I lay in bed struggling to put some of my own stressors into Biblical perspective, I was moved by the Spirit to thank the Lord for trouble.  In His kindness, He uses these things to leave us no choice but to run to Him.  

What a wonderful thing if we could regard difficulty, trials, trouble…as a conduit of blessing.  God is the source of all good things, including life, joy, peace, and love.  Fellowship with Him is described as fullness of joy in Psalm 16.  The psalmist also writes there, “I have no good apart from You.”  Closeness to Him is the essence of blessedness.  What draws us into this closeness more swiftly and surely than trouble?

A simple search through the Psalms for the concept of trouble shows that difficulty drives the faithful straight to the Lord’s side, where they find a stronghold of steadfast love, forgiveness, redemption, shelter, preservation, sustenance, comfort, revival, rest, and delight (Psa 6, 9, 25, 27, 32, 34, 41, 46, 50, 54, 71, 77, 86, 91, 94, 107, 119, 138).  In a word, they find help.  The evil of trouble drives them to the ultimate good who is God.

This is not to say that trouble itself should be desirable to us.  We ought not wish for pain because of the pleasure that accompanies it.  We’re not meant to crave trouble.  In fact, our hope is the second coming of Christ when all trouble will be gone forever (Titus 2:11-13Rev 21:4).  However, trouble is tempered by the comfort derived by the necessity of clinging to Him.  We don’t crave trouble, but the peace of fellowship with Him overwhelms that trouble.  Trouble then can be considered a road to blessing in that it brings us to desire Him more than we would otherwise.

Paul’s words in 2 Cor 1:8-9 capture this dual nature of trouble: For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  Trouble is fearsome and it causes us great distress and pain, yet it does us the immense good us driving us to our great God and Savior. 

Those who have walked with the Lord for years will testify that the sweetest fellowship they’ve ever known was during times of difficulty.  On the other hand, times of relative ease are when we find ourselves most likely to drift from Him.

Trouble reminds us how needy we are and how sufficient He is.  It displays how fleeting worldly pleasures are, but how eternal divine pleasures are.  It removes our focus from the empty things of the creation and places it on the excellencies of the Creator.  It gently forces upon us a desire for the one thing that will make the new heavens and new earth so magnificent: the comforting presence of the Godhead.  When trouble drives us to the Lord, it brings a taste of heaven into this fallen world.   

Those of us who are in trouble - in the midst of our lamentation, we should make room for thanksgiving.  We should dare to enjoy the closeness with Him that our difficult circumstances necessitate.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

What's the next sermon series?

“So what are we doing next?”  

This is the question I hear repeatedly every time we are nearing the end of another book of the Bible on Sunday mornings.  I like to keep it a secret to build anticipation, and I’ve never been a master of deflection, so my answer is usually something inelegant like, “I can’t tell you.”  Though I'm not usually forthcoming with the new series, I love it that so many people are eager to know what’s in store, and no one looks forward to a new series more than I do.

We’re doing something a little unusual next.  In a sense, we’re going to be considering the entire message of the Bible.  That’s right - the whole counsel of God in four messages.  We’re considering this:  What is the point of everything that God has done and how should we live in light of it?

As you know, our focus this year is on equipping for evangelism.  This sermon series will serve that focus while not zeroing in exclusively on evangelism.  Our aim will be to think deeply about God’s agenda for the world and how this agenda should drive our lives.

In his book, The Course of Your Life, Tony Payne writes: 

“Because God’s agenda for the world is to transfer us into Christ’s kingdom and to transform us to be like Christ, then our agenda is to press forward towards maturity in Christ by prayerfully  setting our minds on God’s word and to move others towards maturity in Christ by prayerfully speaking God’s word to them.”

This is the theme of our next four Sunday’s together in the Word.  It is so easy to miss the forest for the trees when it comes both to reading the Bible and living the Christian life.  The big picture helps us to put everything in its proper place and orient ourselves accordingly.

When we don’t see the big picture, we easily misunderstand any small component of it.  Worse, missing the big picture of God’s plan has ramifications for how we live our lives.  If we don’t understand what God is doing in history, we may view His commands to us as an unrelated collection of moral directives.  We may then seek to obey God as it pertains to spiritual growth, moral purity, discipleship, and evangelism without understanding how those things are related to one another or how they correspond to God’s grand plan for the world.  We may engage in these activities with the mindset that our purpose in them is simply to be as moral as possible until Jesus comes back.  What a tragedy!  God’s commands to us are intended to accomplish something - His grand plan!

This series will help bring all this into focus.  All that God has commanded serves His plan for the world, a plan which He has made known to us.  The Bible reveals what His agenda is and therefore what our agenda should be.  He has also revealed His means for accomplishing this agenda.  

God’s agenda, quite simply, is this: to transfer lost people into Christ’s kingdom and to transform saved people into the image of Christ.  Because we belong to Him, His agenda should be our agenda.  

God’s means of accomplishing His agenda is the ministry of the Word.  Lost people are saved by hearing the Word of Christ; saved people are matured by the Word of Christ dwelling in them richly.  If we would participate in God’s agenda, we must use His means - speaking the gospel to the lost and the saved, and commending that gospel with our lives.  This should our lifestyle.  

Disciples making disciples.  This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when He commissioned us in Matthew 28:19-20, and it is what we'll be considering together for the next four weeks.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Why is it so hard to share the gospel with those closest to us?

In our Home Fellowship Group on Sunday, we talked about which kinds of people it is most difficult to share the gospel with.  While there was no consensus, a number of us felt that family members and close friends are the hardest.

Why it is that sharing the gospel with a stranger can be so much easier than sharing it with a loved one?  It comes down to the fear of rejection, which is simply one manifestation of pride.  What do we care if a strangers rejects us?  We don’t even know them.  There is no sense of loss.  But if a family member or close friend rejects us because we share the truth of the gospel, that is different.  It hurts.  We don’t want to lose them, and conveying the stark demands of the gospel are offensive to those who are dead in their sins.  That loved one will hear the demands of Christ as words of personal attack from us and their rejection of Him will be taken as a rejection of us.

But we have to decide if we love our family’s acceptance of us more than we love Christ.  Jesus told us to anticipate relationships being strained or broken because of His call on us.  He was very upfront about this.  It was not His intention to make us popular.  Remember His words:

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matt 10:32-37).

If we love Christ we will share the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ with those we love, no matter how they might react.  Our desire to please Him should trump our desire to please them.  If it doesn't, we are not worthy of Him.

In addition to that, we need to realize that if we truly love these people we will be willing to suffer the loss of a relationship in exchange for the possibility of their being saved from eternal damnation.  It’s sobering truth - our reluctance to share the gospel with our loved ones is not based on love for them, but rather on love for ourselves and disdain for the personal discomfort that would come with any rejection.  If we really believe that the gospel saves and if we really love these people, we will share it with them.  Choosing our own personal comfort and acceptance via the path of least offense will always be packaged with a passive resignation to their eternal demise.  My silence is my confession that I am okay with their destruction.  

So who is it in your life?  Who is it in your family or circle of friends who needs the gospel, but you have resisted sharing it with them for fear of turning them off, offending them, or completely losing the relationship?  There is a day set in the future for every one of us when it will be too late (Heb 9:27).  Let’s love Christ enough to make Him known and to trust Him for the grace to endure whatever consequences may come.  Aren’t you glad the fear of rejection didn’t keep quiet the one who shared the gospel with you?

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Does the "exception clause" really make an exception?

Here is a question submitted to the podcast better suited to be answered here: 

“I've heard Bible-believing Christians say that divorce is un-biblical, except on the grounds of adultery.  Even those Christians, I feel, would agree divorce should undoubtedly be the last resort, especially if the adulterer is repentant.  For argument's sake, let's assume the adulterer is not repentant, and repeatedly cheats on their spouse.  Does what's known as the 'exception clause' in Matthew 5:32 really mean that?  Is there truly any biblical ground for divorce?”

First, let me agree with the idea expressed - that divorce should always be a last resort.  If marriage is intended to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church, we should fight for marriage and do everything lawful to keep them intact.  Nothing I am about to write should be construed to mean that I am pro-divorce or anti-marriage.

Second, this is an issue about which we can disagree and remain friends.  Good, godly believers hold a range of views on this issue.  

The question refers to a statement by the Lord Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, which reads, "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32).  

It’s not my intention to fully expose these two verses.  If you’re interested, there is a full sermon on this text on our website.  I’ll assert here one statement that is fully supported in that sermon - and which lies clearly on the surface of the text - if you divorce and remarry, you have committed adultery.  

But there are two biblical exceptions.  The first is Matthew 5:32.  It’s also found in Matthew 19:9 - “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”  Common to both texts is the phrase, except on the ground of sexual immorality.  To divorce, except on the ground of sexual immorality, and remarry is to commit adultery.  Therefore, to divorce on the ground of sexual immorality and remarry is not adultery.  If words mean things, it seems to me that divorce and remarriage is permitted in cases of sexual immorality.  

The Greek word for sexual immorality here is broad and covers everything from bestiality to fornication to adultery.  If your spouse commits one of those sins, divorce and remarriage is permissible.  According to Matt 19:1-9, we should believe it may be permissible, but it should never be considered compulsory.  It should be a last resort, not a first resort.

The second exception has been called “abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.”  We find it in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15: To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him…But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.  

If you are married to an unbeliever, and that unbeliever does not want to remain married to you, you are to let them go.  You cannot divorce them, but you cannot deny them a divorce.  If they want to remain married, you must remain married.   

So, yes, Matthew 5:32 really does mean that, and there are biblical grounds for divorce.  But divorce should always remind us that this world is broken.  It should always grieve us and cause us to long for the new heavens and new earth.